Thomas Cole's "The Voyage of Life"

Thomas Cole’s “The Voyage of Life” is a series of four paintings he did in the 1840’s that showed the stages of human development, the first about childhood, the second about youth, the third about maturity, and the fourth about old age. These paintings set out a theory of human development when no theories of that sort would be rendered until the turn into the Twentieth Century and so the four paintings are like Cole’s four paintings on “The Course of Empire” in that they are breaking new intellectual ground and trying to find images to do justice to the insights that Cole offers up even if, I am afraid, he does not in this case do very well at illustrating his conceptions. The paintings in the series are worth consulting because they show us what a muscular intellect can do at starting out an entire field of human inquiry.


The first painting portrays childhood as the period in which a young person in a small skiff and overlooked by an angel emerges from an overhang of rocks into a small stream that has flowers on its banks and sunlight shed on the stream. It would be a stretch, however, to see this as the emergence of a foetus from the birth canal. Rather, it is simply that a person emerges from the unknown into a pleasant place. The second picture treats youth as a young man moving up a quiet stream, again looked after by an angel or guiding spirit, the stream set amidst pretty foliage, and in the distance a kind of celestial castle that looks vaguely Oriental, which might be taken to be the object of his ambitions. The third picture presents maturity as a man in his skiff going over rocky terrain at a quicker pace, a storm around him, the shores filled not with flowers but with rocks upon which he might crash. The fourth picture portrays old age as when the skiff proceeds into an open ocean with a white opening in the stormy sky, perhaps a representation of heaven. The four paintings have connecting visual themes. The water course gets ever wider over the four stages and the first two are the only ones that feature pretty foliage, which suggests happy times, people not having that when they arrive at maturity or move on to their old age.

There are, in fact, no visual effects beyond the ones I have mentioned to provide insight into the nature of the four stages of human development. Critics, instead, focus on the religious inspiration for the four paintings: the messenger, the heavenly rest at the end of the voyage. There is something to be said for that in that psychology at the time of the creation of the paintings was a way into understanding religion. Kierkegaard had published his “The Concept of Dread” in 1844 and it is easy enough to understand religion as having moved its locus of interest from the natural world to the internal world. Religious beliefs would come to be understood in the next half century as religious emotions and those in turn reduced to the psychological states which might give rise to them. So that Cole was part of that understanding makes sense. His romantic consciousness was aware of things that you could not quite put your finger on.

I am more interested, however, in Cole’s decision to present the four stages of human life in the way he does: as hopeful beginnings followed by a mature life of stress and danger, and that followed only by the peace of relief from all cares. That arrangement, that sequence, certainly goes against what later developmental psychologists would suggest. Freud and Erickson say that it is childhood that is tumultuous and that things settle down until people, having made peace with their youth, are able to live out the rest of their lives, their maturity and old age, plying their trades and loving their families, maturity a high point of life, not a decline from youthful ambition.

Consider the other orderings of the stages of life that Cole could have provided simply by retitling the paintings with the names he gives to other ones of them. Let us say he just reversed the order of the second and third paintings so that “Youth” became “Maturity” and “Maturity” became “Youth”. That would also have made sense in that the storm of youth is followed by the ambition and goal orientation of maturity, which is certainly the way Erikson has it. Or consider if he put “Youth” first, that followed by “Maturity”, “Childhood” and “Old Age”. That would have also made sense in that ambition is followed by struggle and that followed by emerging from the rocks into a life of relative calm before having to face the depredations of old age. Or even leading off with old age, that becoming a vision of a child floating on inchoate seas and that followed by stress until one emerges from the rocks to finally catch a glimpse of a heavenly palace. All the arrangements have a psychological plausibility to them and there is little reason to choose between them except that Cole did and for reasons that aren’t clear because people had not been thinking in these terms before unless one wants to go back to Shakespeare or Sophocles. So it is an old idea, the staging of life, but one not available in the first half of the Nineteenth Century.

So Cole’s accomplishment in this series of paintings is to think about human life as moving in stages, reviving an old idea in terms of Nineteenth Century imagery, which is to give it a psychological twist, which means to see life as a set of successive emotions rather than, as Sophocles does, as a dependency escaped from and then reentered or as Shakespeare does as a set of social roles appropriate to different ages, the emotions of each age appropriate to one’s position in life as student or soldier. That is the legacy of these paintings, not their success as art.


Cole spent a lot of time thinking about this project, which he thought of as a follow-up to his other monumental series, “The Course of Empire”. He is also thought to have read Byron and Wordsworth, poets given to thinking about the development of the self. The paintings were highly praised when they were first exhibited. But there is no getting around the fact that “The Voyage of Life” is thin visually. Rocks and stormy seas are cliched visualizations of emotions, even if the flowers and other foliage of the upbeat years do have some freshness to them. Isn’t there something more to be added to catch a viewer’s eye? The paucity of the imagery cannot be blamed on the fact that Cole is psychologizing religion. William Blake did much the same thing when he interpreted sex as a positive religious force and he was still able to imagine his religious subjects with a great deal of power. Blake’s “Elohim Creating Adam”, which dates from 1795, shows God with a compassionate face as well as wings while he gives the touch of life to Adam, who also has a face, his arms outstretched in helplessness while a snake curls around his leg, Adam lying in a pool of water. This image is still shocking in that it conjoins the power of God with a sense of love, those two basic Christian emotions. My answer to why Cole fell so far short of that very high standard is that Cole did not feel the intensities of religion as much as he felt, for example, the grandeur of the unfolding of civilization, where he had benefited from the imaginations of the Old Masters, or the ever surprising nature of the Hudson Valley countryside. Also, maybe, because Cole was too much the thinker for even his considerable artistic talents to be able to express his ideas.